The Poet, The Artist, and the Gnome

Paul Chapman reminisced about his friendship with poet Coventry Patmore in the October 1904 issue of The Nineteenth Century and After. Patmore was a friend of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite artists. In the essay, Chapman tells the curious story of an encounter between Patmore, the painter William Holman Hunt, and a gnome.

[Patmore] said that one evening he was staying in a house together with Mr. Holman Hunt. They were in a room with double folding doors, and were sitting alone together, when, looking through into the further room, which was lit up, he saw a little figure seated on the corner of the table. It was alive and looked about, and was dressed in a quaint dress with a little peaked hat shaped like a harebell, and with pointed shoes. He called Holman Hunt’s attention to the figure seen by himself, and Holman Hunt saw it equally distinctly. Taking some paper, the latter made a sketch of it exactly as it seemed to him to sit there, the sketch corresponding in every particular with Coventry Patmore’s vision of the same. On looking for it again the figure had disappeared. I remember thinking it strange that the figure was so like that of the conventional gnome of the story-books, and I suppose that my host looked on me as a child, and told me a fanciful story. But it was told in a way to impress me, with its veracity, and some time afterwards I endeavoured to find out if Mr. Holman Hunt remembered anything of the circumstance or possessed the sketch, but was told there was absolutely no foundation whatever for the story. Documentary evidence, as I think Professor Huxley once took the trouble to prove, is always absent in such cases. Happily Mr. Holman Hunt is still with us to delight us, and, should he think it worth while, could clear up the mystery.

As far as I know Holman Hunt never did clear up the mystery. Unless it was he who told Chapman that there was no foundation for the story.

This is not the only anecdote about Holman Hunt encountering a gnome. Paul Johnson relates a story told by Lord Tennyson in The Spectator:

Tennyson loved jokes, stored them up, and told them beautifully. Many were rustic items from his Lincolnshire youth. Others were modern. He said: ‘They say I write about fairies as if I knew them, and they ask, “What are fairies really like?”’ He then told the story of the New Forest gnome: Holman Hunt went into the forest to get some studies of foliage on paper. Sitting in a glade he was so absorbed in his work that he did not notice that a little brown man, not three feet high, had crept up behind him. Then he saw a little brown arm stretch out and take his bottle. He looked round, and the little brown man said eagerly: ‘Gin?’ ‘No,’ said Hunt, firmly. ‘Water.’ The little brown man vanished immediately.

Perhaps the sketch alleged by Patmore is hidden away somewhere in an archive or collection.

'The Box of Delights' and Other Train Journeys

Peter Hitchens describes his childhood train journeys home for Christmas with a reference to the children’s novel, The Box of Delights by poet laureate John Masefield. The 1935 book is an eerie and beautiful fantasy set in Deep England, complete with Herne the Hunter, King Arthur, shapeshifting wolves, Punch and Judy, and an evil wizard.

For me, Christmas is always a journey, and a long train journey at that. The old strict-regime English boarding schools may have robbed their inmates of many small, warm, things, but mine gave me this gift – the annual delight of the return home, warm yellow lights at the end of a long slow progress through frosty hills and woods, full of anticipation, with the red sun excitingly low in the cold, clear sky.

Scott Fitzgerald had much the same experience, as he described in ‘The Great Gatsby’, of ‘the thrilling returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and the sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow’.

I think many people have some similar sensation. It is absolutely no good if the journey has been too easy or too comfortable. We cannot feel properly warm and safe unless we have at least felt the edge of the wind and feared being caught in the storm…

John Masefield, in ‘The Box of Delights’ gave Kay Harker an enchanted, if worrying, homeward journey. It’s the low, clear light that does it. Kay looks up at the hills from the train window, and thinks ‘It was a grim winter morning, threatening a gale. Something in the light, with its hard sinister clearness, gave mystery and dread to those hills.

“They look just the sort of hills,” Kay said to himself, “where you might come upon a Dark Tower, and blow a horn at the gate for something to happen.”’

The entire essay is wonderful. Speaking of The Box of Delights you can watch the six-part BBC adaptation from 1984 on YouTube.

Notes on Theater

I found this 2007 interview with Peter O’Toole enlightening as regards the state of the modern stage. He laments the decline of repertory companies from the point of view of an actor:

When my colleagues and I left the RADA after two years there wasn’t one of us who didn’t have a job. Why? Because in England then there were eighty repertory companies. Then there was Scotland. Then there was Wales. Then there was Ireland. You could even buy a job: “Wanted gentleman beginner improver.” And if you paid them a few shillings a week they would let you be on the stage and you could put it on your c.v. We trained for theater, theater, theater. The advent of cinema and television and wireless had only affected our older colleagues twenty years ago. So the tradition we were in was complete theater…Theater is going away. There are no repertory companies now in England. Not one…So the great link we had with theater is gone.

The loss of repertory companies must certainly deprive young actors of the benefits of apprenticeship, by which they might learn their craft working with older actors, who had done the same in turn. I am reminded of Simon Callow’s description of Micheál mac Liammóir whom he had known in the 1960s:

He carried so much with him, so much history: in terms of theatre alone, the fact that he had played Oliver Twist to Beerbohm Tree’s Fagin, that he had been at the legendary pre-war London performances of the Ballets Russes, that he had seen and met Sarah Bernhardt, gave him a link to a mythic theatrical past. His vocal technique itself belonged to the Victorian theatre: even in his lifetime, Tree was thought to be a throwback, and he had been Michael’s first teacher.

I am not at all sure that drama school can compensate for the lost education that came with being part of a multigenerational lineage stretching back who knows how far? To Garrick?

The Primitive Church

A legend of great antiquity connects the foundation of the Church of England to Joseph of Arimathea. What little we know for certain about this figure comes from the canonical Gospels. Matthew described him as “a rich man” who was a disciple of Jesus Christ.1 Mark elaborated that he was an “honourable” member of the church council who “waited for the kingdom of God.”2 When Jesus was crucified it was Joseph who approached the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate requesting “that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave.”3 Joseph “bought fine linen,” prepared the holy body for burial, “and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.”4 According to Matthew it was the tomb that Joseph had prepared for himself.5 This is all that can be said with the authority of Scripture, but we can assume that he was among the disciples to whom Jesus appeared, when Jesus emerged from the tomb resurrected to life.

In the generation or two that followed the events of the New Testament, a wealth of biographical material and legend concerning Joseph was recorded. Extracanonical details appear in the writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian and other Christian historians of the second and third centuries. Throughout the Middle Ages a folk memory persisted in England of Joseph having established a missionary church in Somerset or Cornwall on the southwest coast.

The Anglican clergyman Sabine Baring-Gould relates a very old Cornish story that, “Joseph of Arimathea came in a boat to Cornwall, and brought the child Jesus with him, and the latter taught him how to extract the tin and purge it of its wolfram.”6 The visionary poet William Blake made reference to this legend when he wrote, “And did those feet in ancient time, / Walk upon Englands mountains green: / And was the holy Lamb of God, / On Englands pleasant pastures seen!”7

Valuable metals have been mined in Cornwall for thousands of years. High demand for tin used in the manufacture of bronze led to the establishment of trade routes between Cornwall and Greece, Rome, and the Middle East in antiquity. Sources from the fifth and sixth centuries attribute Joseph’s wealth to the tin trade, identifying him either as a merchant or a “noble decurion” in charge of mining operations.8

But why would Jesus have been traveling with him? It is suggested by Lionel Smithett Lewis, who was vicar at Glastonbury in the early twentieth century, that Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the holy family. He cites “the Eastern tradition” that Joseph was the uncle of Mary and so the great-uncle of Jesus.This is pure speculation but it might explain why the body of Christ was given over to Joseph, and why Joseph performed the ritual preparations for burial, which were the duties of a family member.

In the Middle Ages it was considered a matter of historical record that Joseph of Arimathea returned to Britain as an apostle after the passion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. William of Malmesbury, in his history De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie, written around 1135, claimed that the apostle Philip “sent twelve of his disciples into Britain to teach the word of life. It is said that he appointed as their leader his very dear friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who had buried the Lord. They came to Britain in 63 AD”.10 As the title suggests, they established a church at Glastonbury in Somerset. It is believed by modern historians that the name of Joseph of Arimathea was interpolated by scribes who copied the manuscript several decades after it was written. But the description and date of the apostolic mission is original to William’s careful account. Moreover, the identification of Joseph is given context by the much earlier testimony of Maelgwyn of Llandaff, who wrote around 450 AD, that “Joseph of Arimathea, the noble decurion, entered his perpetual sleep with his XI companions in the Isle of Avalon.”11 Avalon is generally identified as Glastonbury Tor, which was formerly an island.

The English were sufficiently confident in the antiquity of their church that they asserted its seniority at multiple church councils in the fifteenth century. At Pisa in 1409, Constance in 1417, Siena in 1424, and Basel in 1434, the English delegations contended that, “the Churches of France and Spain must yield in points of antiquity and precedence to that of Britain as the latter Church was founded by Joseph of Arimathea immediately after the passion of Christ.”12

Is it true? Did Joseph of Arimathea convert the Britons? We do not know. It is a matter of legend, neither provable nor disprovable. But someoneconverted Britons to Christianity during the apostolic period. Before Patrick preached to the Celts in the fifth century, and long before the Church of Rome sent Augustine of Canterbury to Kent, at the turn of the seventh century, the Church of England was an autonomous ecclesiastical polity. Tertullian, who lived between 155 and 240 AD wrote, “the extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by Roman arms have received the religion of Christ.”13 Eusebius, who lived between 260 and 340 AD, testified that, “The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles.”14 John Chrysostom, the great liturgist and Patriarch of Constantinople in the late fourth century, wrote that, “even the British Isles, which lie outside the boundaries of our world and our sea, in the midst of the ocean itself, have experienced the power of the Word, for even there churches and altars have been set up.”15

During the Reformation, English Protestants revived the history and legends of Primitive Christianity in Britain. As the Church of England purged itself of Medieval corruptions and innovations, the model of a pure and primitive church served as a symbol of the Anglican project.

Footnotes:

1. The Holy Bible: Authorized King James Version,Cameo Reference Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; Matthew 27:57. 
2. KJV, Mark 15:43.
4. KJV, Mark 15:46.
5. KJV, Matthew 27:60.
6. Sabine Baring-Gould, A Book of The West: Being An Introduction To Devon and Cornwall; A Book of Cornwall.London: Methuen Publishing, 1906; 57.
7. William Blake; David V. Erdman (ed.), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Newly Revised Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1988; 95.
8. Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury: Or, The Apostolic Church of Britain. (Pamphlet.) London: Covenant Publishing Company, 1927; 32.
9. Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury: Or, The Apostolic Church of Britain. London: James Clark & Co, 1955; 52.
10. William of Malmesbury; John Scott (ed.), The Early History of Glastonbury: An Edition, Translation, and Study of William of Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie. Rochester: Boydell Press, 1981.
11. Lewis, 1955; 18.
12. Lewis, 1927; 32.
13. Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos, ch. 7, v. 4, quoted in R.W. Morgan, St. Paul in Britain: Or, The Origin of British as Opposed to Papal Christianity. Oxford and London: James Parker and Co, 1880; 195.
14. Eusebius, De Demonstratione Evangelii, lib. iii, quoted in Morgan, 1880; 189.
15. William Richard Wood Stephens, Saint Chrysostom: His Life and Times: a Sketch of the Church and the Empire in the Fourth Century. London: John Murray, 1872; 129.

The First Christmas Card

In 1843 Henry Cole sent the first Christmas card. Cole was a British civil servant, later the founding director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. According to an article on the V&A website, he was “instrumental in reforming the British postal system, helping to set up the Uniform Penny Post which encouraged the sending of seasonal greetings on decorated letterheads and visiting cards.”

The same year that Dickens published A Christmas Carol, Cole commissioned a properly Pickwickian illustration by the artist John Callcott Horsley, which he reproduced on 1000 cards. These were “offered for sale at a shilling a piece, which was expensive at the time, and the venture was judged a commercial flop.” Though we now know it was ahead of its time.

Twenty-one copies of the card have survived. One of them is on display at the Charles Dickens Museum in London through April 2020 as part of the exhibition Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas.

The Headless Horseman Bridge

“Over a deep part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by over-hanging trees, which cast a gloom about it even in the day time, but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. Such was one of the favourite haunts of the headless horseman, and the place where he was most frequently encountered.” — Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

See also: At the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow.